Employees thrive in happy workplaces
For the past few years, I have been immersing myself in understanding the Scandinavian secrets to happiness. As a policymaker, their utopian ways of living fascinate me because they have managed to successfully top global rankings in policy areas that matter to us all, such as education, skills, jobs, health care, social services, and well-being.
Recently, I watched an absorbing web series titled “The Danish Experiment,” which trailed four Irish creatives (a musician, a fashion stylist, a chef, and a street artist) as they spent a few days in Copenhagen aiming to understand the Danish way of life and seeing how that might influence their creativity. They were each paired with a local, who was charged with showing them around the city and giving them more insights about the typical Danish lifestyle, work environment, social life, and leisure time. The episodes felt like sensory journeys and possessed an almost dream-like quality. One of the key secrets to the Danes’ high happiness levels is a healthy work-life balance, which allows people to invest more time with family and friends, open up to new experiences, try out different hobbies, exercise, and spend time in the countryside.
It is obvious from the narrative that the Danes have a lot of time for social connections and leisure, which ultimately contributes to their well-being levels. In fact, according to the OECD’s 2019 ranking of countries’ work-life balance, Denmark was third, with only 2 percent of employees working very long hours (defined as more than 50 hours per week). Danes devote almost 16 hours of their day to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.), socializing with family or friends, and enjoying hobbies and other recreational activities.
A mix of effective government policies has contributed to allowing people to have such a good work-life balance in Denmark. The “Flexjobs” scheme allows employees the freedom to work shorter hours or at a different pace, while employers pay for getting jobs done. Workers enjoy a minimum of five weeks’ paid holiday each year. Parents are entitled to a total of 52 weeks of paid leave to be shared between the mother and father after the birth of a child. Child care centers are available for preschoolers. Such extensive support has empowered Danish women to pursue career opportunities while still having the time to be with their families. About 72 percent of women of working age in Denmark have a paid job — one of the highest labor participation rates in the OECD.
Meanwhile, Finland has long been championing policies that promote a good work-life balance. The new Working Hours Act, which came into force last month, gives full-time employees the freedom to decide when and where they work for half of their working hours. Additionally, the government has recently announced an upgraded family leave system, wherein two parents can each take 164 days — for a combined total of 14 months — to care for their child.
In some countries like Japan, work-life balance policies are not a luxury, but rather a necessary measure for remaining competitive in the global economy. Japan’s population and workforce are declining annually, while the elderly population increases and the fertility rate decreases. This means that the government is spending a significant sum on health care and pensions, while also investing in technologies, education, and stimulus packages for the economy to remain competitive. In order to remedy this situation, the government has recognized family work-life balance as a key priority. It recently introduced a comprehensive policy that allows for more generous parental leave, flexible working hours for parents, the prohibition of overtime work, and subsidized child care services. Just last month — and for the first time in Japanese politics — Japan’s youngest Cabinet minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, decided to take two weeks’ paternity leave.
Every employee has a right to a work-life balance and progressive countries are reaping the benefits of implementing such measures. They are witnessing increased labor participation rates, more dual-earning families, improved productivity levels, higher fertility rates, reduced child poverty, and increased well-being levels. Interestingly, the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, conducted a global survey on 50,000 employees and found that those who enjoyed a good work-life balance worked 21 percent harder than those who didn’t.
Those who enjoyed a good work-life balance worked 21 percent harder than those who didn’t.
On the other hand, the consequences of inaction are very costly. Stanford researchers found that workplace stress costs the US economy more than $500 billion and sees 550 million workdays lost each year. Additionally, health care for burned-out employees costs $190 billion and leads to 120,000 deaths each year.
We know that positive emotions allow us to feel more energized, creative and engaged, while negativity restricts our imagination and discourages us from being proactive or toying with new ideas. Thus, cultivating a healthy, happy working environment allows employees to thrive. Dolly Parton summed it up beautifully when she said: “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.